Bait and Switch
Price Gouging at Palm Mortuary
May 13, 2001
1325 North Main Street
Las Vegas, NV 89101
Dear Mr. Wright:
I am writing this letter to register my dissatisfaction regarding my experience at Palm Mortuary in handling the funeral arrangements for my brother, Martin A. Milley. My concern relates specifically to the way in which Palm Mortuary's charges were explained to me in advance compared to how charges were imposed at the time of signing the necessary paperwork. In essence, I believe that I have been subject to "bait and switch" tactics.
In writing this letter, I am not primarily seeking an adjustment of the charges. Rather, I want you and every one in the funeral industry to understand how short sighted and counter-productive these practices are. If this letter contributes to more effective regulation, or better yet, higher ethical standards observed throughout the funeral industry, the result would be far better than a simple adjustment after complaint.
Marty's daughter, Michelle Milley, made our family's first contact with Palm Mortuary via telephone late in the week of Marty's death. Michelle spoke with Virginia Baltier (my apologies if Virginia's name is not spelled correctly) and got details on an "ID viewing" and "direct cremation." The discussion included reference to a "Simplicity" cremation container ($125). At that time, the costs under discussion were slightly over $1,000. [Palm Mortuary's General Price List (GPL) offers Direct Cremation at $955 if the customer supplies the container and at $980 with an alternative container, a difference of $25. Apparently, over the telephone, Mr. Milley's family was going to be charged $100 more for the alternative container.]
I first spoke with Virginia via telephone on Saturday. At that time, I indicated that we wanted to invite one of Marty's friends and have a more formal viewing. Virginia told me that embalming ($440) [consistent with the GPL] and the use of a Mortuary viewing room ($325) [$180 on the GPL] would be necessary. With the understanding that total charges would be less than $2,000, I gave Virginia verbal authorization for the embalming. [Per phone quote: $955 + $125 + $440 + $325 = $1,845] Family members then committed to travel arrangements for a Tuesday, March 13 mortuary viewing. The important point here is that I was led to make these commitments with an understanding that total costs would be less than $2,000. I believe that my conversation with Virginia was very explicit in this regard.
When Michelle and I arrived at Palm Mortuary Monday morning March 12, Rick VerPlanck handled the necessary paperwork because that was Virginia's day off. Very much to our surprise, Rick insisted that rather than assembling individual charges as Virginia had quoted over the phone, we were required to start with the "CREMATION WITH VISITATION AND FUNERAL CEREMONY" package ($3180) and to delete the "USE OF FACILITIES/STAFF FOR MEMORIAL SERVICE IN CHAPEL" (-$725). While I explained to Rick the basis of my understanding with Virginia, he absolutely refused to extend the pricing that I thought that I had agreed to with Virginia before committing to the embalming and travel schedule.[It is a violation of the FTC Funeral Rule not to let the consumer pick and choose the services and merchandise wanted.]
In addition, Rick stated that the "Simplicity" cremation container ($150) that had been discussed for the "ID viewing" was not permitted in the mortuary viewing rooms. The least expensive container that he would allow in the mortuary viewing room was the "Minor - Flat (cloth)" cremation container ($295). [Again, it is a violation of the Funeral Rule to tell consumers what they must buy, regardless of which room is used for viewing.] Even after we were able to see the various cremation containers in the Mortuary show room, this remained a point of considerable contention in our conversation. However, Rick remained firm. He simply would not permit use of the "Simplicity" container. Payment in full was made via my charge card in the amount of $3,003.27 on March 12, 2001.
Finally, when I explained to Rick that the Veterans Administration told me that there was a VA death benefit, Rick handed me VA form 21-530 titled "Application for Burial Benefits (Under 38 U.S.C., Chapter 23)". When I mentioned that the VA had lead me to believe that the funeral home would help me with the form, Rick used words similar to "We don't do that anymore."
In summary, I am not very satisfied with my experience at Palm Mortuary. It seems obvious to me that I was given low price information as long as I was still in a position to take my business elsewhere. Once, as a result of travel and schedule commitments, I no longer had this flexibility, the prices suddenly changed.
As there are no other immediate family members residing in Las Vegas or within the region served by Palm Mortuary, my dissatisfaction is not likely to directly impact future business for Palm Mortuary. However, I assure you that my experience at Palm Mortuary will impact my future dealings with the funeral industry. Specifically, I expect that I will be handling the final affairs of both of my parents. In addition, shortly after finishing this letter, I intend to amend my own will to be very explicit about how I want my own affairs to be handled in this respect. I have already had a number of candid conversations with both family and friends on the subject of their personal arrangements. Palm Mortuary's short-term gain will ultimately become the funeral industry's long-term loss.
I look forward to your response.
May 23, 2001
Dear Mr. Milley:
I have received your letter regarding your unsatisfactory experience with Palm Mortuary. I want to apologize for the way you were treated. Your experience is not the way we try to do business. I will not defend what our staff told you: Rick was mistaken on several issues. Suffice it to say that we did not intend to mislead or deceive you.
I am enclosing a refund check in the amount of $183 which represents the difference between the $125 casket price you were initially quoted and the $295 casket you did purchase (with sales tax adjustment).
Be assured that your letter and your experience will be used to insure that what you experienced will not happen to someone else. [How might that be?]
[FCA's executive director, Lisa Carlson, wrote to the president of Palm Mortuary pointing out the FTC violations and indicated that we were considering posting Mr. Milley's complaint on our web site. The letter asked if any of Mr. Milley's facts were in dispute. The following reply was received.]
May 31, 2001
Dear Ms. Carlson:
We received your FAX regarding the complaint of Michael Milley regarding his treatment at our funeral home. Attached is a copy of our May 23rd written response, apology, and partial refund to Mr. Milley.
We are aware of the FTC rules, and we apologize for the inappropriate way our staff handled his funeral arrangements. As Mr. Wright, our general manager, responded to Mr. Milley, it was a mistake and we are taking appropriate actions to prevent a similar situation from happening in the future.
[Not finding this a very inspired response, we called Mr. Kreml: "What actions are you taking to make sure this won't happen in the future?" He replied, "We're going back to the basics with both funeral directors and how they pass the baton between one staff member and another dealing with the same family." That hardly seemed sufficient, so the problems with the General Price List were mentioned. He seemed totally unaware. We also noted that the "partial" refund of $183 was rather gratuitous when Mr. Milley had been charged $1,000 more than anticipated. Mr. Kreml didn't have much to say to that.]
The lesson to be learned:
Palm Mortuary apparently has priced its "Direct Cremation" to compete with area funeral homes or at least keep it within a few hundred dollars of what is charged at other local mortuaries. It is perfectly reasonable for a consumer to assume that, if additional goods or services are wanted, the price for each will simply be added to a package price.
But Palm Mortuary insisted on charging Mr. Milley a la carte prices that resulted in a total that was more than $1,000 over that.
How can that be, you might ask? Palm Mortuary is a prime example of funeral homes that are abusing the nondeclinable "Basic Services of Funeral Director and Staff" fee -- a sort of cover charge you must pay. This fee is for those services common to ALL funeral arrangements (meeting the family, getting the death certificate information, obituary information, and any required permits--a couple of hours work as a rule). It was never anticipated that it would be a large portion of the funeral bill. In fact, this fee--per the FTC--is supposed to be small enough to be included in package prices such as "Direct Cremation" or "Immediate Burial."
On the Palm Mortuary GPL, however, this nondeclinable fee is $1,025. Hard to see how it could be "included" in a package price of $955 that also provides significant other items. Some funeral directors claim they "discount" the "Basic" fee in the immediate disposition packages. But that is NOT what the FTC Funeral Rule says. If that were permitted, families choosing more services would pay a penalty--an extra fee--simply for wanting more services, IN ADDITION to paying for the services themselves. This is the opposite of most business practices. Of course, more elaborate services are more work and require more overhead than minimal options. But the additional recompense for the funeral home should be captured in the price of each offering, not in a nondeclinable fee that holds the consumer hostage to the tune of $1,000 or more.
Any funeral home with a nondeclinable fee of more than $400 or so certainly creates the appearance of gouging the public. FCA wants the FTC to eliminate ANY nondeclinable fee whatsoever.